N.W.T. gov't reveals plans to address discrimination in health care

Health and Social Services held a public briefing on its draft Cultural Safety Action Plan Wednesday. It includes a number of goals over the next two years to improve access to services, client experiences and the health outcomes of Indigenous people.

Draft cultural safety action plan includes goals to improve experience, health outcomes of Indigenous people

Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy held a public briefing on the department's Cultural Safety Action plan on Wednesday. (Emily Blake/CBC )

The Northwest Territories government has revealed its plan to address inequities in health and social services — and several MLAs are applauding the move.

Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy held a public briefing on the department's draft Cultural Safety Action Plan Wednesday afternoon. It includes a number of goals over the next two years to improve access to services, client experiences and the health outcomes of Indigenous people.

"This has been something that's been a conversation for many years. A lot of work has been done to get us to this point," said Abernethy.

Members of the Committee on Social Development were receptive to the plan, saying this is something that's needed in the territory and a strategy they want expanded to other government departments and services.

"In a nutshell I would say that it's a very positive move by the department, I think it's long overdue," said Tom Beaulieu, MLA for Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh. "These things take time but there [are] a lot of concerns from Indigenous people on their treatment when trying to obtain health services."

A number of Indigenous people from across the territory have shared their experiences with the CBC and said when accessing health services they faced challenges, like not having their symptoms taken seriously or assumptions that they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. At the public briefing issues like language barriers and an over reliance on painkillers at some community health centres were also raised.

Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh MLA Tom Beaulieu says he's supportive of the government's plan and it's long overdue. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Beaulieu said he's also experienced discrimination as an Indigenous man. While he was the Health and Social Services minister, Beaulieu said he went to a doctor's appointment and noticed the receptionist's demeanor changed when speaking to him, she became curt and rude.

"It kind of gave me an indication that it doesn't matter who you are or what you are, it appears as though the judgment on how to treat me was based on how I looked," he said. "I found that to be a bit disheartening."

'It's about doing things differently'

Abernethy said the government is committed to changing the way services are provided so people feel respected, safe and heard. He stressed that they're making a department-wide shift and putting the focus on building relationships and trust with Indigenous people and communities.

"It's about doing things differently and better to make sure that we're recognizing the different cultures around the territory."

The government's draft action plan includes goals for staff training, improving communication and engagement and honouring traditional knowledge in facilities.

Abernethy explained they're working on upgrading the government's current web-based training on Indigenous cultural awareness to be more interactive. They're also piloting a number of workshop-based training models with health and social services staff from across the territory. These address behaviour and attitudes by helping people understand how they make decisions; it also challenges them to think differently, he said.

Abernethy said they hope to select a program that suits the territory best in the next fiscal year and then roll it out for all staff.

The department also plans to review its policies around things like having traditional foods or practices like smudging in facilities.

Beyond 2020

While MLAs were largely supportive of the plan, they did raise questions about how the government will monitor its progress and whether these goals will address the challenges faced by other groups in the territory like the LGBTQ community.

Abernethy said they plan to rely on health indicators that the department currently monitors and that some of the impacts could be generational. He also said the changes the department is making will be beneficial for more than just Indigenous people.

"Although our primary focus initially is on addressing the … challenges for Indigenous people in the Northwest Territories, the skills that our staff learn will help them with everybody."

Abernethy said he hopes to table the final plan in the upcoming sitting of the Legislative Assembly by the end of February.

He also said this will be a long-term change beyond 2020.

"This is about setting the keel or the foundation, this will become core and embedded in all business that we do in health and social services."